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Masking facial expressions creates communication challenges, say VIU profs

Brain isn’t as efficient in interpreting half a face, professors say
When people wear a mask, they must take steps to communicate clearly and rely on other cues to convey their message, say Vancouver Island University professors. (Stock photo)

Wearing masks, while helping to limit the spread of COVID-19, also limits the range of facial expressions people can use to communicate.

As mask-wearing has become mandatory or expected in more and more places, Vancouver Island University professors have been examining ways that masks affect human interactions, noted a press release from the university.

Wearing masks, the professors say, requires people to use “different strategies and social cues” to communicate.

Lindsay McCunn, a VIU psychology professor, said “the brain prefers to see wholes” and isn’t as efficient in its interpretations when seeing only half a face uncovered. However, she said people wearing masks are more aware of using other cues in conversation.

“We use our eyes a lot more. The eyes are a secondary way to understand what someone means and what their facial expression is telling us,” McCunn said. “We are noticing gestures being made and we can compensate when we wear a mask by using our hands and arms to get what we want to say across.”

Maureen O’Connor, a VIU nursing program professor, said more than 75 per cent of communication is non-verbal, mostly via facial expressions. She said it is estimated that humans can make and interpret more than 250,000 facial expressions.

“So, if your face is covered, it is more difficult to convey what you are trying to express, and it is more challenging for others to interpret you correctly,” she said.

She said people who are more visual interpreters and listeners tend to use eye contact more, but others focus by looking away, and for some cultures, eye contact isn’t considered respectful.

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O’Connor said people who can’t hear conversations can feel excluded and socially isolated. She suggests some tips for better communication, including turning to face the person to whom you’re speaking, speaking slowly and clearly, staying patient when asked to repeat yourself, and actively listening and concentrating during a conversation.

The press release noted that masks can pose challenges for the elderly and others with hearing issues.

“Many people with hearing challenges rely on lip reading and facial expressions to correctly understand what is being said and with a mask this isn’t possible,” says O’Connor.

The press release suggested that while “masks are a critical part of preventing the spread of COVID-19 … it is also important to understand that there may be barriers to some people wearing them.”

McCunn noted that individuals who live with obsessive compulsive disorder or other sensory or anxiety-based disorders, for example, may be unable to wear a mask or to focus on anything else while wearing one.

“There are situations where people not wearing masks could feel misunderstood or be at risk of social confrontation,” the release notes. “They may feel as though they need to explain themselves to combat the judgments of others.”

The press release from the university stressed the role of masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19, and offered a reminder that masks are recommended in situations where physical distancing is challenging.

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